The Girl In the Glass
by Jeffrey Ford
The Edgar-Award-winning and Nebula-nominated The Girl in the Glass has con men with hearts of gold, side-show carny freaks, bootleggers, mobsters, mad scientists, the Ku Klux Klan, government conspiracies, and a ghost, all wrapped up in a noir thriller set in Depression-era New York City. Sounds like a recipe for absolute mayhem, doesn't it? But Jeffrey Ford keeps a tight rein on this lean, breathless page-turner. I can understand his impulse to keep this three-ring circus of crooks, eccentrics, and murders under control, but I fear that he may have choked it a bit. After all, with a cast as endlessly colorful as the one he chose, isn't a little chaos part of the fun?
Thomas Schell has the dexterity of a sleight-of-hand magician, the golden tongue of a first-rate con man, and the analytical abilities of Sherlock Holmes. He preys upon the gullibility of New York City's wealthy elite, who have isolated themselves from the city's poverty out on Long Island. Schell poses as a spiritual medium who communes with the dead. With the use of cold readings, flash powder, voice-throwing, and countless other tricks, he gives them closure with their deceased loved ones and relieves them of a hefty sum of money. But this is no Robin Hood venture. He is a con man, through and through. Or so he claims.
He has two partners in his sham seances. Anthony Cleopatra (real name Henry Bruhl), is a former carnival strong man who acts as driver, bodyguard, and occasional fake ghost. The other is Diego, an orphaned illegal immigrant from Mexico that Schell unofficially adopted. Jobs were scarce in the 1930's, and part of the government's solution to lower the unemployment rate, called "repatriation", was to forcibly extradite all Mexican immigrants, whether they were citizens or not. To avoid this fate, Diego poses as Ondoo, an Indian Hindu mystic, and acts as Schell's assistant and "spiritual savant" during the seances. It's clear that Schell views Diego as a son, but it's not quite as clear whether he wants him to carry on the con artist tradition. He coaches Diego in the intricacies and finesse of upscale scamming, but he also spends a considerable amount of money on private tutors to give him a classical education. Schell, Diego, and Anthony all live in a large house in Long Island that contains a large "bugatorium", or butterfly hothouse, and a considerable quantity of bootleg liquor. Keeping and breeding butterflies is Schell's hobby, and illegal booze is Anthony's hobby.
The one sour note in the relative harmony of this posh bachelor pad is Schell's unspoken but obvious depression. Anthony chalks it up to the inevitable dissatisfaction of a life spent in deceit. This unsentimental observation troubles Diego, who still retains his boyhood idol worship of the talented and brilliant Schell. But this turns out to be just the beginning of Diego's world unraveling. The next night, during a routine seance, two things happen: Diego falls in love with the wealthy client's Mexican maid, Isabel, and Schell sees a real ghost.
From this point on, the pace of the story never lets up, as Diego and Schell each wrestle with their own phantoms. Diego's love for Isabel forces him to examine his past and his Mexican heritage. The devoutly cynical Schell must discover if the apparition he saw was real, and if so, what it means. As the three con men dig deeper into the mystery of the ghost, they find themselves enmeshed in a web of conspiracy far more intricate and deadly than anything they could have concocted. By the end of the book, they will require the services of the Dog Boy, the Fat Lady and her trained pigeons, a knife thrower, and a psychopathic inbred mutant albino named Merlin. I won't give too much more away, because watching it all unfold is one of the most delightful aspects of the story. But I just want to say that when it comes to a pitched battle between mobsters and side-show freaks, I know who I would root for.
The Girl In the Glass is an exciting novel to read. If you're looking for a smart thriller peppered with colorful characters and interesting historical tidbits, this will be a very satisfying book. The writing is as tight as a drum and Ford relentlessly ups the stakes until I was literally breathless to finish the last few chapters. But that's precisely my problem with the book. Several times, I found myself wishing it would slow down. For example, before Schell adopted him, Diego lived on the streets with his brother, Hernando. The only thing we learn about this time in Diego's life is that he depended on Hernando for survival and that at some point, they were separated and Diego was left to fend for himself. I want to know more about Hernando. I want to know what it was like for two Mexican kids to live on the streets in 1930's New York. If a reunion between the brothers doesn't fit in the plot, I at least want an acknowledgment of the loss. But Ford drops the subject immediately and never returns to it. There are several scenes between Diego and Isabel in which Ford describes them together, alone, perhaps sitting on the beach, watching the tides. But he doesn't let us in on their intimate dialog. Time and again, we merely get a glimpse of something, as if through a window, and then it is gone. But it is the quiet scenes between plot twists that deepen our empathy for the characters and make the action all the more exciting. Ford gives us just enough to keep us engaged, but never more.
Ford is an excellent short story writer, as exhibited in his collection: The Empire of Ice Cream. Like most good short fiction, his plots don't have an ounce of fat on them. But novels afford the luxury of further exploration. In fact, they require it. Even though Ford's characters seem to beg for a longer leash, he never loosens his grip past what is required by the plot. Like the butterflies that figure prominently in the plot, The Girl in the Glass is bright, charming, and ephemeral. Lovely in the moment, but six months from now, I won't remember it.